non-public policy

Responding to complaint, city vows to investigate secular learning at 39 Jewish schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
The city has made a strong push to include Jewish schools in its drive to add thousands of new public pre-K seats.

With its pre-kindergarten expansion underway and its school-turnaround program under pressure to perform, New York City has its hands full with its own schools.

And yet the city was recently reminded that it is also on the hook for overseeing private schools, under a state law that says local officials must ensure that non-public school students receive an education “substantially equivalent” to that of their public school peers.

Last Monday, more than 50 Jewish school parents, former students, and former teachers invoked that rule in a letter asking several superintendents to investigate nearly 40 yeshivas that they claim offer unacceptably scant instruction in math, English and other non-religious subjects. The education department has promised to investigate, as Jewish Week first reported.

“We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that all students in New York receive an appropriate education, and we will investigate all allegations that are brought to our attention,” spokesman Harry Hartfield said in a statement. He did not answer any specific questions about the investigation.

Such an investigation would be a rare move, experts say. While Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and other private schools receive millions of public dollars for things like busing, testing, and immunizations, they operate almost entirely out of public view. And though the city is responsible for keeping tabs on the private schools in its borders, other factors can get in the way: City officials have limited resources, a reluctance to overstep church-state boundaries, and an awareness that these schools serve politically connected communities.

“There are political, fiscal, and legal complications involved in this,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, referring to the city’s duty to oversee private schools. “All of them militate against the application of the rule.”

There are 250 yeshivas in New York City serving more than 106,000 students, making it the largest non-public school sector. While many Jewish schools are known for their mix of rigorous religious and secular studies, some of the yeshivas that educate boys in the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have long been said to focus primarily on religious instruction.

The group responsible for last week’s letter, Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, has been asking the government to probe yeshivas’ academic programs since 2011 but said it saw no signs of official action until delivering this letter, which was also sent to media outlets.

The group says that most yeshiva classes are taught in Yiddish or Hebrew and focus on religious texts, with just 90 minutes per day devoted to math and English for young students and often no secular studies for high school-aged boys. (Girls tend to enjoy a more equal mix of studies.) Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster, who attended a Borough Park yeshiva, said the school left him woefully unprepared when he decided to enroll in a community college.

“I didn’t know what the word ‘essay’ meant,” he said, “let alone how to write one.”

State law says that private schools must offer reading, math, science, history, health, and other academic classes on par with those in public schools. If a local superintendent finds that a school is not doing so and fails to make changes, the district can cut off the school’s public transportation and its funding for textbooks and health services, and mark its students truant, the law says.

The group has been on a multi-year quest to get the government to look into secular education at these schools. Moster said he met with state officials in 2012, but they told him that district superintendents are responsible for enforcement. So Moster met with a few Brooklyn superintendents with many yeshivas located in their districts, but he said they knew little about the rule.

Last December, the group sent a letter to top state and city officials requesting an investigation into secular studies at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, but got no response. This time, they enlisted 52 parents and former yeshiva students and teachers to sign onto the letter and forwarded it to local superintendents and the media.

The letter asked for an investigation of the academic instruction at 39 specific yeshivas: 38 in Brooklyn and one in Queens. The group withheld the names of the signatories and the yeshivas — part of an effort to reassure the ultra-Orthodox community that the group’s intent is to reform the yeshiva system, not to sanction individual schools.

Maury Litwack, state political affairs director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which represents New York yeshivas, said the schools have a “dual curriculum” of religious and secular studies that they “are always looking to improve.” However, he said many schools are cash-strapped and could use more public funds to support math, English, and other non-religious instruction.

“If the city and state want to have a robust discussion about how our kids are educated, that discussion has to include what they’re willing to invest,” he said, “because right now the answer is a very paltry amount of funding.”

Several experts on the ultra-Orthodox community said they knew of no instance when the city education department had investigated a yeshiva’s academic program. And now may be an especially sensitive time for the agency to begin conducting such investigations since City Hall has spent the past year trying to convince yeshivas to join in the mayor’s signature initiative and offer full-day pre-K, even though that means less religious instruction for their students. The ultra-Orthodox community is also considered a powerful voting bloc.

At an unrelated press conference Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed unfamiliar with the city’s responsibilities under the equivalent-education rule when asked about the call to investigate the yeshivas.

“I’m not sure I follow, because obviously it’s a separate school system,” he said, adding that he needed to review the matter.

But City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said the city takes its duty seriously to address complaints about any private school, including the yeshivas cited in last week’s letter.

“Everyone is held to the same standard,” he said in a statement, “and there is zero tolerance for the kind of educational failure alleged.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.